When mentioning “Titanic” and the movies most people today instantly think of James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster epic. But there have actually been several movies centered around that ill-fated voyage in 1912. One of the best of these films came out in 1953 and like Cameron’s movie, this film was simply titled “Titanic”. It featured a fine cast and special effects that were considered pretty cutting edge for that time. Of course being a 1953 picture it didn’t depend on its special effects as heavily as Cameron’s. Instead the true strength of this version lies in the characters and their stories which unfold before us on the ship prior to the collision which would eventually sink the vessel.
In the film Julia Sturges (Barbara Stanwyck) boards the Titanic with her 18-year old daughter Annette (Audrey Dalton) and 10-year old son Norman (Harper Carter). She’s secretly leaving her husband Richard (Clifton Webb) and taking her children to America, leaving behind the lavish high society living that Richard is consumed with. But he gets wind of her plan and is able to buy his way onboard before the ship sets sail. Webb is perfectly cast as the snobbish and conceited aristocrat. He surprises Julia and their children in the dinner hall later that evening and let’s just say the exchange between husband and wife is pretty heated.
For much of the remainder of the film the two battle it out with their children caught in the middle. One of their biggest disagreements centers around their conflicting views of class. Julia is tired of the pampered upper class living and misses the more humble life of her American roots. Richard’s arrogance is such that he believes their worth is tied to their prosperity and social status. This personal conflict between them mirrors the class differences on the ship. The movie doesn’t spend a lot of time on it but we do get several looks at the swanky elegance of the first class passengers contrasted with the poorer people in the noisy and crowded decks below. Of coarse Richard and Julia also argue about the future of their children which leads to some brutal verbal exchanges and the unveiling of secrets that have been hidden for years. The scenes shared by Stanwyck and Webb are brilliantly written and performed and I found myself completely absorbed in every word.
There are several other interesting characters on the ship as well. I loved the wonderful Thelma Ritter as a straight-shooting wealthy woman who’s still grounded in her working class roots. I also enjoyed 22-year old Robert Wagner as a peppy Purdue University tennis player who tries to win over Annette. Richard Basehart has some fine scenes as an ex-Catholic priest struggling with alcoholism. Unfortunately his character is terribly underdeveloped. But I also have to mention Brian Aherne as the ship’s Captain. He gives a subtle but focused performance that paints the perfect picture of what I would imagine the Captain to be like. There are several other characters that work for me as well and while I do wish some had been given more screen time, they each have their moments where they capture my interest.
But regardless of how well these personal stories play out, this is still a story of the disastrous maiden voyage of the Titanic. The film only spends about 30 minutes on the collision with the iceberg and the subsequent sinking of the ship and that works out just fine especially considering the film’s compact overall running time of 98 minutes. As I mentioned earlier the special effects are quite good. Considering today’s heavy CGI approach to visuals, it’s interesting to see how these older movies approached their special effects. I think what makes these so effective is that director Jean Negulesco never keeps his camera focused on them. He shows us some incredible long shots of the ship in various stages of descent but in each scene he cuts his camera or puts something else in the shot to keep us from seeing his visual trickery. The results help create a perfect sense of peril that I really responded to.
Charles Brackett, Richard Breen, and Walter Reisch won Oscars for their work on “Titanic’s” screenplay and while there is a level of sentimentality and melodrama, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. And I wouldn’t say that their story is striving to be the most accurate account of the disaster. As with the most recent movie, there are several things that Titanic history buffs could pick away at. But in terms of dramatic storytelling the trio collaborate to create a highly entertaining character-driven drama. The dialogue is smart and efficient and its easy to be enthralled when it’s handled by such a wonderful and capable cast.
1953’s “Titanic” will never match James Cameron’s film in visuals, size, or scope but for me it doesn’t have to. This is a movie that certainly stands on its own. It’s character based storytelling approach draws you into the story and by the time the ship begins to sink you’re thoroughly invested. In many ways its structure resembles that of Cameron’s epic minus the newer film’s bloated first half. This is a much tighter story and there’s never a wasted or throwaway scene. I do wish we could have spent more time getting to know some of the smaller underdeveloped characters but I wouldn’t trade that for a single scene that Stanwyck and Webb share together. So if the only “Titanic” picture you’ve seen was the 1997 box office smash, take time to give this one a watch. It certainly deserves a new audience today.